Did you know we’re currently experiencing a space exploration revolution? No, I’m not talking about billionaires beaming themselves up, but rather the ground-breaking mission of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which launched last month and is currently en route to its final destination—a spot known as the second Lagrange point (L2), where it will orbit around the sun (harnessing solar power from the sun-facing side of the aircraft) and transmit its findings back to earth.
This telescope represents the biggest space observatory that has ever been constructed and is expected to provide us with never-before-available imagery and information for the next 5 – 10 years!
The mission will aim to help us understand how the universe developed by directly observing when it was young. The telescope was crafted to explore a time period called the ‘Epoch of Reionization,’ which came after the dark ages. One of the mysteries scientists hope to solve from the data received by the JWST is how the universe became completely ionized, eventually leading to the “clear” conditions present in much of the universe today. It’s also going to try to trace the formation and evolution of the first galaxies. If that’s not mind blowing, I don’t know what is!
In addition, starcycles will be a focus for the JWST. Its infrared capacity will allow scientists to study the conditions in star-forming regions that lead to new stellar systems and probe stellar nurseries where very young stars reside. The JWST’s mid-infrared wavelengths will study the dust itself, which will shed light on how those environments contribute to the creation, evolution, and diversity of stars and planetary systems in our universe.
It Takes a Village
One of the most inspiring aspects of this mission is the fact that its evolution was truly a group effort between NASA, The European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. To be more specific: The international team, who spent 40 million hours building the telescope, was made up of thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians from 14 countries and 29 American states. Furthermore, their expertise came from governmental, academic and private sector backgrounds, making it one of the most collaborative space projects in history.
The multicultural team—along with scientists and citizens across the world who were cheering them on—have justifiably been celebrating their wins in light of the telescope’s smooth deployment. I couldn’t be more happy for them! This bright spark of good news arrived at the perfect time in light of all the challenges we continue to face on this planet, in the wake of the pandemic.
Like a “Giant High-Tech Origami”
To get this mammoth telescope into the spacecraft that would carry it to its destination 930,000 miles from our planet, the engineers had to get clever about packing. In fact, they had to fold the contraption, which is approximately the size of a tennis court, in a way that will allow it to flawlessly unfold during a two-week process (!) in space. The primary mirror alone is segmented into 18 pieces on a hinged structure to achieve this feat.
Once it lands, it will undergo a 6-month period of commissioning that involves full deployment, a cool-down to optimal operating temperatures, the alignment of its many mirrors and a calibration of the on-board instruments.
Once unfolded, the various instruments will capture the desired data. The equipment sent includes:
Cameras to shoot photographs of astronomical objects.
Spectrographs to separate light into colors.
Coronagraphs to block starlight so the telescope can observe orbiting planets nearby.
New technologies were also invented and developed for this mission, including a “microshutter” device that contains thousands of minuscule windows, each the width of a human hair. These have the capability of being programmed to open or close, which will enable spectroscopic measurements of hundreds of individual objects simultaneously.
In the course of creating new instruments and tools for JWST, scientists discovered innovative “spinoffs” that are already improving life on earth. One example came from a technique engineers used for precisely and quickly measuring JWST’s mirrors to guide their grinding and polishing. Their procedure has now been adapted to create high-definition eye maps for patients undergoing vision surgery.
Follow the Journey
If you’re like me, you’ll want to know when JWST arrives at L2 and keep a close eye on what it reports back to the scientists and researchers here on earth. To watch for imagery (expected in June), follow @space_telescopes on Instagram. For current news updates, follow @NASAwebb on Facebook and @NASAwebb on Twitter. And if you join the conversation, don’t forget to use the official hashtag, #UnfoldTheUniverse.
What excites you most about the John Webb Space Telescope Mission? Share your thoughts in the comments section.